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Questions Raised About Chemical Spray At San Antonio City Park

David Martin Davies | Texas Public Radio
Bird Island at Elmendorf Lake Park

At an undisclosed time Friday, new warning signs are expected to be posted at Elmendorf Lake Park, alerting the public about a chemical that’s sprayed in the area.

The spraying isn’t new. It’s been happening for more than a year.

Every four minutes at Elmendorf, a machine inside a grey metal box on the side of the lake pumps out a foggy mist that smells like grape Kool-Aid.

It’s called the Bird Buffer, a chemical mixture that is designed to irritate birds.

Credit David Martin Davies | Texas Public Radio
A Bird Buffer nest to a pathway at Elmendorf Lake Park.

Kamala Platt said she came across the machine while walking with a friend in the newly renovated Westside park.

“We’re walking back and she stops and says ‘wait a minute’ and she smells the grape smell,” Platt said.

She noticed it, and then she said she started to feel it.

“It hits you in waves, and it can start getting to your eyes and to your throat,” Platt said.

Bird Buffer is a commercially available product sold to drive birds from a location. Its slogan is “Invisible Protection - Visible Results.”

The Bird Buffer’s active ingredient is methyl anthranilate, which the FDA approves for bird control. It is also used as a food flavoring for grape bubble gum and candies, but in direct prolonged exposure, it is listed as a substance toxic to humans.

The U.S. Library of Medicine Toxnet lists its effects on humans as eye, skin and respiratory irritation. Populations particularly at risk are those suffering from asthma.

When asked if the spray should be allowed in the park, the answer is obvious to Platt: “No, it should not be spraying this and definitely it should not be spraying without letting people know what it’s spraying.”

The city has been using Bird Buffer at Elmendorf Lake Park since May 2017, and in that time, there has been no signage or postings informing park users that prolonged exposure can lead to health issues.

But at Brackenridge Park, there are multiple large signs that read in English and in Spanish, “Entering an avian control zone. Device is in operation. Prolonged presence in the area is not recommended. Play in this area is restricted. Climbing on the Bathhouse is prohibited.”

Credit David Martin Davies | Texas Public Radio
A sign at Brackenridge Park

The signs are placed in and around the old Bathhouse and a park area known as Lambert Beach; in the early 1900s this was a popular swimming location. But today it’s popular with birds - particularly egrets. There are so many that they and their droppings have become a filthy nuisance.

Homer Garcia, Assistant Director of the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department, said that’s why the city began using the Bird Buffer at Brackenridge in the area next to the San Antonio Zoo and across from the Joskies’ Pavilion.

“It [Bird Buffer] was really to balance out the presence of the migratory birds and the predominant egrets in that area,” he said.

He added there have been amenities for public use, like picnic pads and barbecue pits, for a long time in that area and he’s watched a more concentrated presence of birds continue to grow.

In short, the city installed the Bird Buffers in early April 2018 to hopefully drive the egrets away. But soon after,  some park goers like Alesha Garlock complained after coming in contact with the fumes.

“I had to go urgent care because I’m allergic to it,” Garlock said. “And I went to an optometrist the next day and he said I had chemical burns on my eyes.”

The Bird Buffers were turned off in May but resumed in August, which is when the Texas Department of Agriculture inspected the Brackenridge Bird Buffers.

“One of the things on the label was not real clear on was its use around endangered species,” Garcia said. “So, they [Texas DOA] just asked us to please cease utilizing those devices, so we ended up just pulling them out of the park altogether.”

Garcia added the citation did not involve a fine, instead it simply served as a warning.  

Credit Provided

Credit Provided

However, according to copies of the notice of violation by the Texas DOA, there was a $500 fine for using a pesticide inconsistent with its labeling. It is listed as hazardous to humans and domestic animals. Additionally, the notice of violation said the product can’t be used in proximity to endangered species – of which there are many in the nearby zoo.

At Elmendorf Lake Park, Garcia said an inspection conducted Thursday by the Texas DOA found no issues, but they will now be posting warning signs similar to the ones that have been in place in Brackenridge Park for over a year.

Why didn’t Parks and Rec place those signs before Texas Public Radio and others started asking questions about Bird Buffer?

“We, you know, felt comfortable at that point that… it wasn't posing any health or safety issue,” Garcia said. “That was something that was missed on our part, but that is something that's also easy for us to correct.”

And why are there still signs up at Brackendrige Park warning of the Bird Buffer if the city stopped spraying? Park goers like Garlock said they are still feeling the effects of the chemicals.

“Obviously the zoo is spraying and that over spray is coming into the park,” she said.

Garcia with Parks and Rec said that’s true, and that’s why those warning signs remain. But he didn’t know how many Bird Buffers the zoo is operating and where they are placed.

In a written statement, the San Antonio Zoo said they are using a bird deterrent system and they have been in contact with the health department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure this method has no negative impact on the health of the wild birds, other animals or people.

But the zoo denied that its methods are causing a problem for the visitors to Brackenridge Park.

The statement said: “Sweet or fruit-like smells noticed in the park may be emanating from the production of funnel cakes, cotton candy, churros, and other treats produced by zoo culinary locations or by native Mountain Laurel trees currently in bloom that put off a strong grape-like scent.”

Garlock, however, said she doesn’t think it was churros that burned her eyes.

David Martin Davies can be reached at DMDavies@TPR.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi